Even though the word does not appear in the New Testament, the idea of atonement still permeates the whole Bible. Salvation is possible and effectual for all who believe in Jesus because he atoned for our sins by his sacrificial death on the cross.
The Hebrew word for atonement is kaphar and it means “to cover, purge, and reconcile.” In the Old Testament, God atoned for the sins of his people through animal sacrifice. Leviticus 16 is a particularly important passage for us when we consider the history of this word.
Leviticus 16 is important because it describes the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, known to us as “The Day of Atonement.” On that day, the high priest was to make atonement for himself and his family, then for the people of Israel. Verse 34 tells us, “This shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of their sins.”
In the New Testament, Jesus is our atonement because, simply, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). Before Christ, sacrifices had to be made once a year. They were a foreshadowing of what was to come in Jesus, who “has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26).
Not only is Jesus our atonement, but he was substituted for us as he took the penalty for sin. These ideas together give us the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (penal meaning “penalty”). It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Christian faith is wholly dependent on this doctrine.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree…For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18).
He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed (Isa. 53:5-6).
If you do not receive the payment Jesus made for sin by his atoning sacrifice, then you will continually seek something else to make the payment. You will seek to cover your sin and shortcomings with relationships, status, wealth, body-image, reputation, knowledge, wisdom, adventure, entertainment, discipline, work-ethic, sexual encounters, or a thousand other things. And, as Tim Keller has said, those things can never ultimately save you, and if you fail them, they will never forgive you.
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Over the next couple of months, we’ll be walking through the ABC’s of Christianity. I’ll write short posts about 26 words that every Christian needs to know.